Happy Birthday Michael Jordan!
Aside from making me feel old - celebrating Jordan's birthday is as much a remembrance of my love and passion for basketball as it is a rekindling of the principles about life I took from watching his Airness rise to become more than a basketball player but an international, immediately recognizable icon. I agree with Michael Wilbon, sportswriter, when he said on TNT's coverage of his birthday, "For goodness sakes, all you need on the bottle of cologne is the outline of his bald head." But that isn't what I am writing about today.
Jordan became more than just a basketball player for me when I was 15 and watching him in the NCAA national championship as a player on Dean Smith's disciplined North Carolina basketball squad. He was just so smooth, polished and calm. But he wasn't "MICHAEL JORDAN!" In fact, his teammate, James Worthy, won the most valuable player award for the game. But that is where my love affair with Jordan started. Dean Smith taught the young men that they are a team and without collaboration and discipline, they will not reach the levels of success that they expect. When you hit the game winner and aren't chosen as the MVP, I am sure a lesson was learned. A teacher can be great, but without the cooperation and collaboration of colleagues and, most of all, the learners, you are only as great as you THINK you are and not as great as your results indicate. I think when teachers recognize that they need to develop rapport and understand they shouldn't "control" the learners as much as understand the environment and needs of the learner and adapt material and strategies to those conditions, they will be more successful. Maybe they won't earn the MVP award - but they will remain cool under pressure and the final outcome will be more valuable.
A Nike commercial in which Jordan shares the number of free throws he has missed, the winning shots he has missed and other "failures" he has experienced. The conclusion is that failure is what leads to success. Truly, how can one know success unless they have tasted defeat? Teachers are the same way but, and I think even Jordan would acknowledge this, the stakes of not taking risks and not learning from the mistakes that sometimes occur, are much higher when working with learners. But that is what it takes in education. I was taught early on that teachers beg, borrow and steal ideas and approaches. We do whatever it takes to get through to our learners. If I have to pilfer an idea to teach a lesson in a particular way, then so be it. But, and Jordan is an example of this, if I need to adapt to fit a unique situation, I am competent and confident enough to do so. In Phil Jackson's book, The Last Season (2004) he recalls how difficult it was to get Jordan to go along with the "Triangle Offense." The way he recounted it was that Jordan could freelance his way through the intricacies of the offense but that to make it more effective and efficient, he would have to follow the various pathways and strict distances associated with the plan. When Jordan did "go along with the program" the success came quickly and consistently. The final conclusion was that Jordan was following the outline of the Triangle offense but could adapt, modify and at times, forego the plan to move toward success. Make no mistake, Jordan had his extremely confident moments when he felt he had to just take over. Tex Winter recalls the end of one game when Jordan was taking over and neglecting his teammates.
Winter said to Jordan, "Hey Mike, there's no 'I' in TEAM."
To which Michael replied, "But there is in WIN, which do you want Tex?"
Following a collaborative plan is important for teachers but sometimes we must hold to the convictions we have about a learner. Although there is a plan with strict guidelines, we know our learners and we need to do what is in their best interests and have the confidence in our preparation and knowledge to stand behind what we decide and not be afraid to fail.
The other side of that collaboration is that we need to allow for the freedom of creativity and innovation our learners have inside them. They often know what they need or how to solve a problem a new or different way and, if we have a strong foundation in understanding the learning process, we can allow that kind of freedom because we know it is appropriate. Phil Jackson knew that about Jordan. A leader has to allow for the continuum of understanding in their learners. Lau Tzu once wrote, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim is fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." A teacher, when leading appropriately, and curricular goals have been met, is barely seen - further, they give credit where credit is due, the efforts and struggles of their learners. I don't understand the material for my students, I place it before them in a manner that they can discover and allow them the construction and rec-construction of their understanding by doing, reading, listening and critical thinking. Jackson knew that. Jordan knew that. Most basketball analysts will tell you, before Paxson, Hodges, Cartwright, Longley and of, course, Pippen - Michael didn't win. At North Carolina, Worthy was MVP. Before my students had success, I thought I could be a great teacher. I was prepared to be a great teacher. But without the efforts, struggles and successes of my students, could I be called a teacher at all? It is in the relationship that the identity comes through. Remember to let go and let the learner shine. Jordan did that and I remember that lesson.
Finally, Jordan, and people that know him, will tell you that he is his harshest critic. He pushes himself and by association, those around him, to be their best. But he doesn't tell his teammates, "Work harder!" and then not work hard himself. He leads by example. In this way, he becomes a barometer of sorts for those around him. I hope I am that model for my learners - teachers should hope to be that for their learners. I don't always succeed. Heaven knows I am not at my best even now. But integrity, strength of character and confidence should never waiver. Even though my efforts don't always go recognized or rewarded. I make the effort for myself, not others. If a student doesn't do well on a task, I ask myself, did I prepare the student enough? did I present it in a manner that relies on the learner's strengths rather than weaknesses? Did I do all I could to make it accessible? I avoid placing the blame on the learner, although sometimes it rightfully belongs in the lap of the learner. Be a model for excellence and others will see it.
So Happy Birthday Michael! 50 ain't so bad and the lessons people take from your words and actions are more important than the lessons you may or may not have been trying to pass on to others. I believe I have done pretty well in giving my learners the long-lasting impression that I worked hard for them and remained the trained professional in teaching and learning. They may not have come to the same conclusion that my lessons(s) may have intended but they enjoyed the process and hopefully learned something. Maybe someday I will write a book about ALL of the influence Jordan has had on me, but for today, this is it.